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Chinese Hi-Fi: why they're cheap as hell but often sound better than they have the right to

Getting good quality sound often comes at a hefty price, something that is addressed with the advent of “Chinese Hi-Fi.” But as our resident tech geek points out, there are several important trade-offs.
Anton Chua | Apr 03 2019

Walk into a fancy tech boutique and look at how much the branded earphones cost. Sennheisers, Jabras, Boses, anything with even a glimpse of good quality will cost thousands of pesos. Anything less might sound like a tin can—tunog lata as any old audiophile would say. 

But what if you could have the sound quality of something in the upper price ranges at less than a quarter of the cost? That’s the promise of Chi-Fi, which we’re going to take a look at today.

 

What’s Chi-Fi?

A portmanteau of “Chinese” and “Hi-Fi,” chi-fi refers to the wide variety of amazingly cost-effective, sometimes no-name audio products that come out of China. While many cheap knockoff electronics such as smartphones or TVs have a bad rep for skimping on performance, chi-fi products often sound vastly better than they have any right to, given their price!

Chi-fi earphones can go for as little as P300. They might not have the branding or flair of more common brands, but they make up for it by sounding like they’re worth several multiples of their price. There are also chi-fi DACs and headphone amps equipped with extremely high-quality, top-class circuitry that could put them up there with the fanciest equipment from better-known brands. Headphones, too, have a lot of representation in chi-fi circles.

 

More tech for the audiophile:

 

The reason why they seem so unknown is that the companies that make them rarely spend anything on marketing. Even the packaging seems suspect—some chi-fi products are sold in a little plastic bag with a piece of paper glued on that shows the brand and model.

Many chi-fi products are also clones of more popular brands, often Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic. There are frequent, though unconfirmed rumors that chi-fi manufacturers once worked for the big brands. Others suggest that they run the factories that are used to produce these brands’ products, and simply cloned and rebranded them at a vastly lower price. Naturally, this would make it hard to market these products.

 

What are the downsides?

Chi-fi is inexpensive and often sounds as good as the more expensive stuff. So besides awareness, why aren’t more people walking around with cheap Chinese equipment in their ears?

The first problem is quality control. There’s a reason why these things are cheap—the manufacturers have skimped on a lot of things, and it’s not just marketing. While you’re still not likely to get a low-quality or defective product out of the box, it’s still taking a risk. Of course, the risk is offset by the very low prices.

Secondly, you’re not going to get any aftersales support from these companies. If your product dies a couple of months out, or if you break anything, you’ll either have to fix it yourself or buy a new one. There are lots of forums out there dedicated to helping chi-fi users, but it’s still legwork if you want to find fixes.

Another problem is that certain chi-fi products need to be modified in some way to get the most out of them. For example, certain earphones sound better with aftermarket tips or buds. Others actually need to have the driver vents punctured with a needle to get the most out of their sound. None of this information is found in the box; you’ll have to enter the community and read up to know how this works.

Finally, availability is a concern for all, but the most popular of chi-fi products. Most chi-fi products are sold by specialty stores which are few and far between, or would otherwise have to be purchased abroad. There are plenty of local communities that have buy and sell groups, or do group buys for the most popular chi-fi products.

 

The best starter chi-fi earphones

While chi-fi products can be a good deal, there’s also a sea of trash to wade through. Learning about the market is all about diving deep into these communities and exploring what people have purchased. Many of these communities do meetups where people show off their setups; you can join these to see what chi-fi products suit your tastes. Alternatively, some of the specialty stores allow you to try the products for yourself.

The point is, it involves a lot of research and legwork. However, some products have become venerated in the chi-fi community for their universal reliability and quality. I’ll list a couple here which have received much praise, and are relatively easy to find locally, whether on online stores or at specialty shops.

 

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VE MONK PLUS. One of the original products that helped with the initial explosion of chi-fi’s popularity, the Venture Electronics Monk Plus are regular (non-in-ear) earphones that are an excellent gateway drug to the wonderful world of cheap but high quality. They can be found for as little as P350 pesos. These are among the easiest to find locally because Venture Electronics actually partnered with a local group, HEEP (Headphones and Earphones Enthusiast Philippines), to create a Philippine Edition that is widely available on online stores. Photograph from Amazaon

XIAOMI PISTON. Xiaomi might be a pretty big name now, but back in the early 2010s when they were still known for cheaper, lower-end products, they released a pair of IEMs called the Piston, which had excellent sound and build quality at low price, and which were hailed by the international audiophile community. Today they’re still a staple recommendation in many groups, and now come in several forms, variants, and revisions. There are also wireless, USB-C, and noise-cancelling versions that produce the same audio quality. The latest versions can go as low as P230. Photograph from Amazaon

KZ ZST. Knowledge Zenith, or KZ, is considered “mainstream” in the world of chi-fi, and almost every “Best of Chi-Fi” list will include one or even two of their products in the lineup. The KZ ZST is one of the most popular products by this brand, and sounds great out of the box. Like many KZ products, it has detachable cables, which can be replaced with other aftermarket products as needed, or even converted to Bluetooth if desired with a special cable. The ZST goes for about P700, putting it in the midrange for chi-fi. Some people go a little further with their ZSTs, and perform the puncturing modification that I described earlier. This often results in superior sound quality, but you need to be pretty exact with the mod to get it right. You can find more online. Photograph from Amazaon

TIN AUDIO T2. At about P2,300, the Tin Audio T2 is pretty expensive for chi-fi, rivaling the higher entry-level Sennheiser IEMs for example. However, the reviews universally describe them as sounding incredible, definitely in proportion to their price. They’re far more than just a budget choice—they’re a respectably high-quality option all on their own. Photograph from Amazaon